Europe French foreign policy
The Bamako effect
Will France’s intervention in Mali make Francois Hollande popular at home?
Bienvenue, Papa Hollande!
“Vive la France!” read one home-made placard; “Merci Papa Hollande!” declared another. The spontaneous outpouring of gratitude on the streets of Bamako and Timbuktu, during Francois Hollande’s lightning one-day visit to Mali on February 2nd, was part of a storybook sequence that the unpopular French president could only have dreamed of. It was, he gushed, “the most important day in my political life”. Two days later, Joe Biden, the American vice-president, stood beside Mr Hollande in Paris and applauded his “decisiveness” and “the incredible competence and capability” ofFrance’s military forces. For a politician whom members of his own party compared variously to a marshmallow, a woodland strawberry and a caramel pudding, this was bliss indeed.
Under the Fifth Republic, a French president is expected to act at once as a kind of monarch (solemnity, distance) and an active executive (decisiveness, authority). This is a tricky mix, and for the right, Charles de Gaulle has long served as the ideal. For the left, it is Francois Mitterrand, the only other Socialist president. Ever since he decided to run for election, Mr Hollande has become an adept Mitterrand mimic, in gesticulation, pace and tone of voice. Yet it takes more than physical imitation to earn authority. Before France’s Mali operation he struggled to overcome a reputation for consensus-seeking and fudge.
Now, the military intervention is prompting a reassessment. The decision to dispatch fighter jets and attack helicopters to blast advancing jihadists was taken quickly and pragmatically. It was bold, with the French enjoying little allied help. “His image has changed” and he has “dispelled doubts about his authority,” says Zaki Laidi at Sciences-Po university.
Might such uncharacteristic boldness abroad translate into the same at home? In some ways, the French decision over Maliwas not difficult: Mr Hollande judged that he had no choice. As Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, put it, “there was a spectacular acceleration” of the jihadists towards Bamako the day before the French strikes began: “if nobody had intervened, Bamako would have fallen two or three days later”. Mr Hollande did not have to take on a war-weary or doubting public opinion, or hostile political opposition.
A greater test is whether Mr Hollande is bold enough to take on his own constituencies with domestic reform. He has begun to implement some measures to improve competitiveness, including a softening of labour-market regulation, which does not appeal naturally to the left. Yet these have been offset by crowd-pleasing tax increases on the rich and on companies, and a reluctance to cut public spending. Given that the public sector supplies many of his deputies and voters, upcoming attempts to reform pensions and the civil service will be a better test of his willingness to take risks.
Even less clear is whether a more authoritative image will transform Mr Hollande’s poor poll ratings. The link is not automatic. Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor, got no ratings jump from the war in Libya. For Mr Hollande, much depends on whether things go horribly wrong in Mali; for the moment, the French have had only one soldier killed. So far the polling evidence is mixed. One recent survey suggested that Mr Hollande’s low ratings have barely moved. A poll in Paris-Match, a weekly, showed a six-point jump in his popularity, to 43%—but a mere 37% applauded his economic policy.